Liverpool’s midfield is peculiar. Great teams are often defined by a stellar midfield. Roy Keane and Paul Scholes. Casemiro, Toni Kroos, and Luka Modric. Most infamously, Busquets, Xavi, and Iniesta.
Jurgen Klopp, however, has built his side on the dynamism of his front three and fullbacks, while his midfield is essentially functional. That’s no slight on the likes of Fabinho, Giorgino Wijnaldum, and Jordan Henderson. It’s simply how Klopp has altered his tactical approach to maximize Liverpool’s squad.
Heading into this season, though, Klopp clearly wants to diversify his midfield options. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain provides greater creativity but has at times operated as part of the Liverpool front three. Naby Keita is a dynamic ball-carrier but has failed to shine for the Reds in the same way he excelled for RB Leipzig. As such, it’s of little surprise that Liverpool are on the verge of completing the signing of classy playmaker Thiago Alcantara.
After leaving Barcelona in search of regular first-team football, the Spaniard has established himself among the best midfielders in the Bundesliga. While he has been used as a creative number eight for most of his career, under Hansi Flick he was been deployed as a deep-lying playmaker in a 4-2-3-1, usually alongside the more dynamic and defensive Joshua Kimmich. Despite the roles being markedly different, the 29-year-old’s tactical intelligence and vast skill set has enabled him to thrive as a number six.
Thiago’s greatest strength is his ability to progress possession under pressure. When dropping deep to collect the ball from the centre-backs, he is often met with an intense opposition press. Due to the positions he takes up on the pitch, losing the ball in these areas would leave Bayern hopelessly exposed defensively.
However, Thiago excels at utilizing turns, feints, and shimmies to subtly evade an opposition marker. His first touch also allows him to control the ball in tight areas or create space from an opposition player. He is also comfortable carrying the ball through a press, with 2.4 successful dribbles per 90. Thiago maximizes his technical quality to relieve his team of opposition pressure.
For a team of the standard of Bayern Munich, though, Thiago was expected to do more than simply retain possession under pressure. Despite occupying the number ten role, Thomas Muller isn’t necessarily a creative link between midfield and attack. As such, Thiago often assumed the role of Bayern’s primary creative player.
Using his vision and passing range, he spread the play and found the likes of Serge Gnabry and Kingsley Coman with direct, vertical passes. More commonly, though, he looked to find teammates who find space in between the lines with penetrative forward passes. Thiago excels at taking the opposition’s midfield line out of the game by bypassing them with intelligent passes. This is especially effective against teams who play with a high press, as it creates numerical advantages against an isolated defensive unit.
Despite his primary creative role, Thiago is also a competent defender. He wins 70% of his ground duels and makes 2.6 interceptions and 3 tackles per 90. Despite his 5’9” frame, he wins an impressive 2.8 aerial duels per 90. He is relatively strong and quick and is particularly good at initiating sudden bursts of acceleration that can be an asset both with and without the ball. Thiago is generally lauded as a creative player, but his defensive contributions are vital to his viability as a number six.
Once he completes his move Merseyside, he will have to adapt his role somewhat. Stylistically, Liverpool are more direct than Bayern Munich under Flick, and Thiago would have to get used to playing more direct passes. Should he play at the base of the midfield, Thiago could also be more burdened by the intensity and pace of the Premier League than if he were to play in a more advanced role.
The Spain international will need to shoulder more defensive responsibility than he does at Bayern Munich, where he plays alongside another anchoring midfielder. Thiago would also need to curtail his pressing, something that he is encouraged to do at Bayern, but would leave the Liverpool back four exposed if he started as a number six.
However, the benefits for both parties are clear. Thiago is joining the best club in England and one of the best teams in Europe with a strong chance of breaking into and improving the starting eleven. Liverpool are, for relatively little money, acquiring one of the best midfielders in the world.
Further, Thiago would relieve the creative burden of Liverpool’s fullbacks and give them an alternative way of creating chances. The Reds also have players such as James Milner and Jordan Henderson who could shift from a flanking midfield role to a more defensive one during the course of a game, relieving Thiago of some of his defensive duties. Perhaps most crucially, Liverpool have the luxury of being able to ease Thiago into the first team gradually, assisting in his transition to Premier League life.
Worryingly for their rivals, Thiago’s acquisition will make the Premier League champions an even stronger outfit next season.